FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Sandwiched between two doctors’ offices at a roadside plaza in Falls Church is the headquarters of a small team of veteran Republican investigators who since late last year have had a goal: bringing down Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
“We’ve never sent a Democrat to jail,” said Ken Boehm, chairman of the group, the National Legal and Policy Center.
To Menendez and his staff, the work going on at the suburban Washington, D.C., office suite, paid for by donations from prominent Republicans nationwide, is proof the building news-media frenzy focusing on his actions to help a Florida eye doctor is at least in part a political smear.
But the results have been troubling revelations. Issues documented by several news organizations involve serious accusations of favoritism by the senator.
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In recent weeks, Menendez has acknowledged intervening with at least four federal agencies — including the departments of State and Health and Human Services — in ways that stood to benefit friend and campaign contributor Dr. Salomon Melgen, who is under investigation for possible Medicare fraud.
But the way the investigation got started illustrates the often-hidden role that partisan players have in helping push major media outlets to dig into accusations lodged against members of Congress.
The inquiry began with a tip — unproven and vehemently disputed by Menendez — that Melgen had helped procure prostitutes, some of them underage, for Menendez, after flying the senator repeatedly on his private plane to the Dominican Republic, where Melgen has a home at a seaside resort.
This information was put forward by an odd array of self-interested characters, including the right-leaning website The Daily Caller, and someone — his identity remains a mystery — who claimed to be an American citizen who frequented the Dominican Republic.
The combination of accusations of misuse of public office and of sexual misconduct helped propel the story into the headlines and onto television.
Menendez just won his second Senate term and took over as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, making him an important foreign-policy player. He sees evidence of a conspiracy.
“It is no coincidence that it was being peddled before the election,” Menendez, who has declined requests for an interview, said during an appearance in New Jersey on Feb. 9.
The story began in April, when an unsolicited email was sent to a left-leaning group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which in a way is the liberal counterpart to Boehm’s group.
“My duty as a U.S. citizen obligates me to report what I consider to be a grave violation of the most fundamental codes of conduct that a politician of my country must follow,” said the first sentence of the email, sent by a person who identified himself as Peter Williams. The email, and others that followed, went on to detail claims related to Menendez and the underage prostitutes, and decadent outings on a yacht.
But there was something suspicious about Williams, said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who is now executive director of Citizens for Responsibility, based in Washington, D.C. Williams would not agree to speak by phone and said he had been aware of Menendez’s activities since 2008 — but was only now coming forward.
Pete Williams is the nickname of former Sen. Harrison Williams Jr., D-N.J.; in 1983, he became the first senator jailed in 80 years, for his role in the so-called Abscam case, in which agents posing as Arab sheiks offered bribes to members of Congress.
Convinced Williams might be a fraud — but concerned about the seriousness of the accusations — Sloan in July turned over 56 pages of email to the FBI, which assigned the matter to an investigator from its Miami office.
Williams refused to meet with the FBI agent, but did provide in a series of emails to federal investigators details about the women said to be involved.
With the 2012 election weeks away, someone brought the material to The Daily Caller, the conservative website. David Martosko, the site’s executive editor, would not say who had contacted the site. But The Daily Caller rushed to arrange video interviews with two women claiming to be prostitutes involved with Menendez and to post the story on the Internet.
The timing hurt its efforts at exposure, however, as Hurricane Sandy had just hit. The Daily Caller tried to increase coverage by letting The Drudge Report break the news, which The Caller posted Nov. 1.
Major newspapers did not report on the accusations related to the prostitution claims, concluding they were not sufficiently substantiated.
In mid-January, someone posted the entire email conversation between Williams and the FBI agent, Regino Chavez, on an Internet site, disclosing there had been at least an inquiry by law-enforcement authorities into the matter.
A Republican Party county organization from New Jersey then filed an ethics complaint against Menendez — based on research of flight manifests — that allowed it to conclude the senator had improperly flown on Melgen’s private plane.
Boehm, 63, an ex-county prosecutor and a former Capitol Hill aide to Christopher Smith, a prominent Republican New Jersey representative, also decided to dive in. Boehm is a master of digging into court records and other public filings to find questionable links between politicians and their patrons. His targets are almost always Democrats.
He turned up evidence that Menendez had intervened with officials at the Commerce and State departments to ask them to help force the government in the Dominican Republic to honor a contract held by a company Melgen owns to help conduct security inspections at seaports there, information Boehm provided to The New York Times.
He also found that a business Melgen owned had contributed $700,000 to a Democratic political-action committee that helped finance Menendez’s re-election bid last year.
Menendez added some corroboration: He reimbursed Melgen $58,500 for two flights to the Dominican Republic that he had taken aboard his private jet in 2010 but had not properly paid for. When the FBI raided Melgen’s offices in Florida last month, the story became a media firestorm.
Melgen’s supporters in the Dominican Republic have said they believe the initial tips were generated by criminal players in that country who did not want his company, Boarder Support Services, to expand X-ray inspections at seaports there, perhaps disrupting cocaine headed to the United States, or by big exporters who did not want to pay higher port fees.
Sloan said that while the investigation may have started with unsubstantiated accusations, follow-up work has turned up some serious charges. “The increased scrutiny on Menendez’s relations with Dr. Melgen was well-deserved and has highlighted some clearly improper conduct by Menendez on Melgen’s behalf,” Sloan said. “But it’s been a long, strange trip.”